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“Incidental” nuclear waste: reconceiving a problem won’t make it go away via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

By Alison Macfarlane

The Cold War left many legacies: thousands of nuclear weapons, a large nuclear weapons complex with its attendant personnel and infrastructure—and millions of gallons of dangerously radioactive waste stored in enormous buried tanks at the Hanford Site, Savannah River Site, and Idaho National Laboratory. The Energy Department recently proposed “re-interpreting” some of this high-level waste as low-level waste, if this material met certain criteria. The public comment period for the proposed change closed January 9, 2019, and commenters weighed in on both sides of the issue.

The states of Oregon and Washington strenuously objected to the Energy Department’s proposal to redefine some high-level wastes at, presumably, the Hanford Site in eastern Washington state. The Yakama Nation, which owns nearby lands, also objected, raising concerns about contamination of groundwater and the Columbia River.

In contrast, non-tribal local governments surrounding the Hanford Site, through their Energy Communities Alliance, supported the proposal, noting that taxpayers would save billions of dollars and shave years—even decades—off tank cleanup. Regardless of what the Energy Department decides, though, redefining some high-level waste won’t solve the biggest problems at Hanford, where the cleanup effort has been perpetually plagued with delays and cost overruns.

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